“per hunc,” inquit [L. Iunius Brutus], “castissimum ante regiam iniuriam sanguinem iuro, vosque, di, testes facio, me L. Tarquinium Superbum cum scelerata coniuge et omni liberorum stirpe ferro, igni, quacumque denique vi possim, exsecuturum nec illos nec alium quemquam regnare Romae passurum.”

“By this” he said “blood most pure – before its royal defilement – I swear, and you gods I call upon as witnesses, that I will drive out Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, his sordid wife, and his progeny with steel, fire, and with whatever strength I am able. I will not suffer them [the Tarquinii] or any other to reign in Rome.”

Livy 1.59.1

A heavy oath: Brutus died for it. Certainly heavier than the one sworn by his feckless descendent still wet with Caesar’s blood.[1] The traditional account of the founding of the Republic should be familiar to all readers of this blog, even if only in Tacitus’ bravura precis (“urbem Romam a principio reges habuere; libertatem et consulatum L. Brutus instituit”). The Tarquinii were expelled, no single man would ever again hold power due to a genius mix of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy,[2] and the nascent Republic won legitimacy in the only political theatre that actually matters, the battlefield.[3] But the Romans were about to find out what the Athenians recently did with King Cleomenes’ feet upon the sacred concrete soil of the Acropolis and what many would be revolutionaries have found out since:[4] internal revolutions seldom stay, well, internal.

Lars Porsenna was king of the Etruscan city Clevsi (Latin Clusium, Italian Chiusi),[5] whose life seemed to have echoed and rhymed with that of many archaic age aristocrats up and down the Italic peninsula. The exact manner of relationship between Lars Porsenna and Tarquinius Superbus, his actions in and around Rome, and their aftermath is of course lost to time. Classicists have diligently teased out a (perhaps) more creditable narrative than what the tradition has handed down to us but, whilst that is an interesting story in and of itself, it is not the purpose of this blogpost. For our present needs, we are going to more or less work with the traditional narrative.[6] Porsenna seems to have struck some sort of deal with the exiled Tarquin, correctly intimating that there would be some aristocratic elements at Rome who would not entirely welcome the new Republic. With this in mind, he set out for Rome with his army, Tarquin in the train, hoping to intimidate them into acquiescence. Not a bad strategy and not at all alien to the classical Mediterranean: The Persians had old man Hippias in tow as they set out to subdue Athens; The Spartans loved installing puppet oligarchies; Alexander would force cities to accept their own exiles as a sort of fifth-column/domestic terrorists in waiting. Ah well, plus ça change

Instead, the Romans decided to fight. Livy’s account presents a larger-than-life narrative with colourful heroes who were once current amongst our educated classes. Horatius Cocles at the bridge; the unfortunately named C. Mucius Scaevola; Cloelia. None of it is true, but none of it is unimportant either. Porsenna’s forces must have been an intimidating sight. It is a rhetorical commonplace to state that kings in the archaic period were little more than thugs. But these were thugs with good equipment, discipline, and numbers. They struck like lightning and soon held the Janiculum. This was disastrous. The Romans must have thought that between their hills and the Tiber they could mitigate some of the enemy’s strength. They thought wrong. It soon looked like the Etruscans would take the Pons Sublicius, a bridge that forded the Tiber and gave easy access to the Aventinus and to the Roman heartland. Horatius Cocles had other ideas and having ordered his men to break the bridge he set to defending it by himself.

circumferens inde truces minaciter oculos ad proceres Etruscorum nunc singulos provocare, nunc increpare omnes: servitia regum superborum, suae libertatis immemores alienam oppugnatum venire.

There, casting his grim eyes about threateningly at the leaders of the Etruscans, now he challenges them single file, now he insults them all at once,[7] for their servitude towards proud kings, heedless of their own liberty, they have come to oppress that of another people’s.[8]

Livy 2.10.8

A heroic moment. Perhaps English and Norwegian readers will be reminded of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, though in this case Horatius got away at the last minute under a hail of missiles.[9] You can see why painters and poets have been inspired by this story. Nevertheless, Porsenna was victorious in the field and the remaining Romans now locked behind their gates (“Porsenna ad portaaaas!”). The Romans had been beaten on the field. Trickery might do. Since the Romans had inherited a congenital allergy to wooden horses, they decided that the next best thing would be to send a youth into Persona’s camp to assassinate the king.

Gaius Mucius slipped into the king’s camp unnoticed. After all, there were quite a few Latins on Porsenna’s side, who would notice one more? He chanced to be there when the king was distributing salaries to the soldiery. As an aside, I am struck by how eternal this image of warlord personally redistributing wealth would be in Italy. Germanic ring givers, Anglo/Italian condottieri captains, Garibaldi and his merry …it is the later Roman bureaucracy that is the rare aberration. Anyway. Mucius, however, has no idea which man is the king and mistakenly kills the secretary instead.[10] He is, of course, apprehended and brought before the king. Porsenna at least was a man and instead of squirrelling young Mucius to some proto-Guantanamo and lying about it to the Tyrhennian Observer, he addresses him directly. The response is intransigent.

hostis hostem occidere volui, nec ad mortem minus animi est quam fuit ad caedem: et facere et pati fortia Romanum est. nec unus in te ego hos animos gessi; longus post me ordo est idem petentium decus. proinde in hoc discrimen, si iuvat, accingere, ut in singulas horas capite dimices tuo, ferrum hostemque in vestibulo habeas regiae.  hoc tibi iuventus Romana indicimus bellum. nullam aciem, nullum proelium timueris; uni tibi et cum singulis res erit.”

“I am an enemy and wanted to kill an enemy. I will not face my death with less courage than I would in killing you. To act and suffer bravely, this is Roman nature. I am not alone in girding my soul against you: there is a large number after me seeking the same honour. So then if it pleases you, proceed in this contest wherein you must fight for your head every hour and withstand an armed foe in your palace. This is the war that we Roman youth declare against you. You will fear no formation, no pitched battle, the war will be between you and each one of us singly.”

Livy 1.2.9-12

Non iam acta est fabula. After having demonstrated a seemingly endless enmity, sworn the Roman youth to forever war, and threatened guerrilla warfare, Mucius then thrusts his right hand into the altar fire. He calls this self-immolation a great glory and his descendants will forever carry the name “Scaevola” (lefty) in honour of this. The king, of course, is horrified and impressed in equal measure and dismisses G. Mucius Scaevola from his camp. He would soon withdraw. Porsenna had the numbers, he had the equipment, he even seems to have had the tactical nous. But he did not have victory. Who could hope to win against such a people? After all, they were suckled on wolf’s milk.

What was Porsenna’s mistake? In Livy’s bed time story I mean. In reality, he seems to have stormed Rome, reduced it to slavery, used it as a launch pad for his raids before abandoning it after a defeat or two. One might say that his mistake was underestimating his enemy and pursuing an unwinnable war. But, following Livy, Porsenna seeks a cessation of hostilities with the Romans more or less as soon as he realises that they can’t be reduced in war. No, his mistake was that neither he nor his staff (nor the traitorous Tarquin in his train) seemed to know the Romans in any meaningful way.

Livy was a Roman writer, writing for Romans. We might chalk up his depiction of the Roman character here to mere chauvinism, especially given what we (think we) know about the actual events of the archaic age. It is true that all peoples at all times lionise themselves and their national character in this way. Herodotus, for example, as an Asiatic Greek had more experience of the Persians than most, yet all throughout his Histories he has them marvel at the Hellenic character. Consider the reaction he ascribes to the Persians upon their discovery of the Olympic games:

πυνθανόμενος γὰρ τὸ ἄεθλον ἐὸν στέφανον ἀλλ᾽ οὐ χρήματα, οὔτε ἠνέσχετο σιγῶν εἶπέ τε ἐς πάντας τάδε. ‘παπαῖ Μαρδόνιε, κοίους ἐπ᾽ ἄνδρας ἤγαγες μαχησομένους ἡμέας, οἳ οὐ περὶ χρημάτων τὸν ἀγῶνα ποιεῦνται ἀλλὰ περὶ ἀρετῆς.’ τούτῳ μὲν δὴ ταῦτα εἴρητο.

For, learning that the prize was a crown [of laurel leaves] and not money, he could not hold his silence and said to them all: “Oh Mardonius! What sort of men have you brought us to war against? They do not contend for money, but for virtue!”. In this way he spoke.

Herodotus 8.26.3

In fact, this may even be the literary inspiration behind Livy’s depiction of the events we are currently discussing. The major difference is that all our historical data point towards there being some truth in Livy’s patriotic scribbling. Consider Pyrrhus’ victory, Aurelian’s resurgent empire, Aetius’ grinding resistance to Atilla, Justinian’s Reconquista, Heraclius’ generational war against the Persians…all the way to Constantine XI at the walls of Constantinople and perhaps to the klephts in the hills beyond. There is something fundamental, foundational, to the Roman character that could be found in pseudohistorical archetypes like Horatius Cocles and Mucius Scaevola. As I said earlier, these stories contained in Livy’s early books are false historically, true in the ways that matter.[11]

This brings us, at last, to recent events. If others too see reflections of the Romans’ contumacy, dissolution into guerrilla warfare, and willingness to literally self-immolate in the Taliban, good. I have feinted clumsily at this. I do not draw this parallel with any sense of approbation, I certainly do not think the Taliban are just a bunch of good chaps hard done by, but I do think Livy offers us a good hermeneutic framework with which to play about. Does that make the US Lars Porsenna? With the same caveats I have just laid out – I think that too is a helpful parallel. Certainly, they both committed the same fatal flaw as not knowing their erstwhile enemy.[12]


Why did I write this? The telchines will crow that no matter what I post, they are of no account. When I first put that poll up (pretend I did not forget about the blog and posted this within 3-5 days…) I suspect many where expecting something a bit more historically grounded. After all, I have a variable but serviceable grasp of some of the ancient languages pertinent to the area: People will kind hearts, big brains, but low pattern recognition might have expected me to produce something on the Hellenistic kingdoms or the Kushanas or even the Sasanids. It was tempting, it still is, but part of the vitality of a discipline like Classics relies on the ability of its practitioners (whosoever they may be) to make credible links with the present and offer us. The Romans, who knew a thing or two about empire, colonisation, and assimilation proved to be an irresistible source of comparison.

The link, with however light a hand it was done, between the early Romans and the Taliban will doubtless prove too provocative for some. The Romans represent for much of us all that is best, foundational, to Western civilisation and the Taliban its antonym. But I put it to those offended that If your reading of the past only ever reinforces your current worldview, if the broad stretch of history looks like a series of steps leading comfortably to your own politics, then you are not doing history, you are constructing just so stories. If 20 years of Western failure in Afghanistan has proven anything, its that self-indulgence is ever more than merely self-destructive.

History is never truly dead.

[1] “De li altri due c’hanno il capo di sotto/ quel che pende dal nero ceffo è/ vedi come si storce, e non fa motto!” Dante Inferno 34.64-66 enjoy asshole. His ancestor is, of course, listed amongst the honourable pagans (4.127-9) along with poor Lucretia.

[2] Shhh.

[3] You can rig elections; you can’t rig wars. War is a horrid, lamentable, and sadly unavoidable phenomenon. Πόλεμος πάντων μὲν πατήρ ἐστι πάντων δὲ βασιλεύς.

[4] Hillary Clinton upon the smoking bones of Libyan children…

[5] Anecdotally, this is one of the few Etruscan toponyms I remember since one of the textbooks I used pointed out that what we take to be the Etruscan endonym – rasna – simply meant people in their tongue and was more often compounded with toponyms e.g Rasneas Clevsinsl. I said it was an anecdote, not an interesting anecdote.

[6] I genuinely hate this kind of disclaimer and feel that this is getting close to detestable academic hedging. But one must ward off the bugmen. Please, if you are reading this, stop assuming I am unfamiliar with the books on your first-year reading list. Spend the time you waste sending e-mails learning Latin or Greek instead.

[7] For those of you who cannot yet read Latin, use the use of now, nunc, is translated literally despite the subject matter being something you would expect to be very past tense. This is an affectation that helps build a sense of vivacity. I know right? Read Livy.

[8] https://www.independent.co.uk/asia/south-asia/taliban-facebook-freedom-of-speech-b1904246.html

[9] He even, unlike Achilles, had the good manners to address the river in prayer before jumping in.

[10] We moderns take this to be evidence of a certain oriental effeteness about Porsenna and his court. Artists love this theme. Look at the pampered Asiatic despots against the hardy, simplistic, Roman sons of the soil. Not only is this moronic and ahistorical, it belies a complete ignorance about the role of a secretarius in ancient armies. Likewise, Hellenistic “historians”, stop writing about the “soft Eumenes of Cardia”. Imbeciles.

[11] Why yes, I do subscribe to the Lucanian school of historiography. How can you tell?

[12] Secret footnote. Good job.

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